As a driving force behind tuning the all-new 2016 Mazda CX-9’s lauded BOSE Premium audio system, it might come as some surprise that Mazda engineer Matthew Valbuena didn’t go to school for engineering. He went to college for industrial design.
More surprising, Valbuena’s first language isn’t English. It’s not Spanish. It’s not Japanese. It’s not even a spoken language.
It’s American Sign Language.
“Both of my parents are deaf,” he said. “When I was young, I had to interpret for my parents when they bought cars, when they bought a house, when they went on job interviews—you name it.”
But he said his parents’ hearing impairment carried a distinct advantage: “I grew up with my music tastes all over the place because the radio presets were all mine.”
Valbuena’s father still enjoys music, even if he can’t hear it. For him, it’s that thump you get in your chest with every beat of the kick drum.
When Matthew was a kid, his father took him where any parent with a car-crazy pre-teen would go: A custom truck show, featuring custom trucks and audio systems that use more electricity than some small cities. Because of his deafness, Valbuena’s father was able to sit inside these customized vehicles and experience extreme sound pressure levels that truly let him feel the music. Matt and his dad were hooked on car audio.
In middle school, Matthew began making money by installing car audio systems for “$20 and a hug” from anyone who’d seek his help, and by 18, he was working at Circuit City while starting his college career. Circuit City liked his work so much that the company fast-tracked him for corporate management training.
With his professional car audio career underway, Matthew then took on the task of outfitting his dad’s car with something that would rival the experiences they had at the custom truck shows they attended.
“I installed four 12-inch subwoofers connected to over 1,000 watts of power in the trunk of my dad’s Mercedes so he could enjoy music as much as I do,” Matthew said. Some people appreciated this more than others.
As Valbuena explains it, one of his dad’s friends went to lunch with him and returned to the office, mortified. His father didn’t understand why.
Of course, it’s hard to take in all of the lyrical musings of hardcore gangsta rap when you can’t hear it, but his devout, conservative coworker clearly didn’t have the same appreciation for uncensored tracks from some of South Central’s most notable lyricists.
Eventually, he worked through the automotive electronics industry, building demo vehicles, contributing to Car Audio & Electronics magazine and became a senior product planner for Pioneer. It was at Pioneer that Matthew learned the nuances of product design and development. At Pioneer, not only did he work on the technical aspects of head units, but he also worked on aesthetics, blending the style and functionality of the hardware and the user interface—skills carried over to Mazda.
DESIGNER, ENGINEER OR BOTH?
“It’s interesting that my job is in multiple realms,” Matthew said.
He frequently works with the craftsmanship and design teams to help with ergonomics and “visual noise” and the engineering department to work with, well, actual noise.
So what is visual noise? It’s where interior panels don’t quite meet flush with one another. It’s where upholstery seams snag the buttons on your jacket. It’s where you can’t quite figure out what you don’t like about the way something looks, but you know you just don’t like it.
It’s what Matthew Valbuena specializes in eliminating before it ever comes close to reaching production.
“Since American Sign Language is a visual language with a variety of subtle visual nuances, and because of my background in visual arts and design, I have a knack for picking up on details that others may otherwise miss, which makes detecting and minimizing visual noise such fun,” he said. “My job is rarely the same from one day to the next.”
Lately, Valbuena has worked with the design department to make all of the information presented on the new windshield-projected Active Driving Display and on the 4.6-inch cluster meter display in the 2016 CX-9 both consistent and legible at a glance while at highway speeds. Other tasks have been working with designers to create a premium look to the speaker grilles for the BOSE audio system while ensuring the design didn’t interfere with the audio response of the speakers they covered and helping to create the iconography used to label the 2.1-amp USB charging ports in the second-row armrest.
“Music is the soundtrack to the perfect drive, road trip, or adventure.”
But perhaps his claim to fame—at least until the next all-new vehicle arrives—is that “Spirited Sound,” a rich, tonal audio experience that Mazda looks to integrate into future models to make listening to the radio a complement to Mazda’s driving dynamics. Valbuena says his intent is for listeners to “experience” the music as if they were actually at a concert—even from compressed music files.
“Music is the soundtrack to the perfect drive, road trip, or adventure, and since we here at Mazda feel that driving matters, we wanted to make sure that music experience matters as well to complement or enhance the driving experience,” he added.
Working with Japanese engineers who often spoke little English, they targeted subjective goals that focused on the audio system’s Power Feeling, Imaging, and Clarity rather than checking off simple spec requirements for speaker sizes and amplifier output. Instead of solely relying on sound quality reference standards, Valbuena used popular, modern pop, rock, R&B and hip-hop tracks from that were relatively unfamiliar to the Japanese engineers. These songs were used to evaluate audio performance as each song had particular sonic challenges that would stand out on lesser systems.
They targeted audio systems from high-end European and Japanese vehicles costing twice as much as CX-9, and Valbuena’s team beat those benchmarks. And they’re setting the bar quite high for all of Mazda’s audio systems now and in the future.
When Valbuena looks at it all in perspective, it seems almost surreal to him. The boy who had to learn how to enjoy music on his own terms is now the engineer teaching others how to rediscover sound quality in an era of steaming at 128 kbps.
“My childhood hobbies turned into my career path and led me to where I am today at Mazda,” he said. “I couldn’t have planned it any better than that.”